Finding Science, Faith, Hope, and Unity with the Poor People’s Campaign

July 11, 2022 | 10:54 am
A photo taken of marchers at the Poor People's Campaign Assembly and Moral March in June, in Washington, D.C. A banner reads "We won't be silent anymore"Denise Duffield
Johanna Chao Kreilick
Former President

Last month, 54 years after the historic Poor People’s March on Washington, thousands—including many of my UCS colleagues—gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington. The march was held by of a broad coalition of organizations, including faith groups, the labor movement, activists, advocates, and scientists, working together across a variety of issues.

Uniting under the umbrella of today’s Poor People’s Campaign, the marchers called for a Third Reconstruction Agenda, whose demands include:

  • Climate resilience
  • Redefining national security by moving away from bloated Pentagon budgets and closer to safe, secure communities
  • Protecting voting rights
  • Justice-centered immigration reform
  • Access to quality health care
  • A living wage
  • Housing

UCS was a mobilizing partner in the Assembly and Moral March because we understand that these issues are inextricably intertwined. Rallying support for one issue alone just isn’t as effective. Working with the broadest range of allies, we must address the existential threats bearing down on us simultaneously, including our changing climate, threats to our democracy, and the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

We are at a game-changing moment for all of humanity, as climate science tells us exactly where we’re headed if we don’t reduce carbon emissions urgently. We’re trying to do our work in the face of a virulent assault on science, facts, and our democracy; during a pandemic well into its third year, and an overdue racial reckoning that has rekindled traumas inflicted by a system of extractive capitalism and white supremacy.

When we only address one of these issues and don’t consider them holistically, the consequences fall disproportionately on historically marginalized communities. And because science, democracy, and truly public-serving policies are also interconnected, investing in one or more enables the others to flourish as well.

At UCS, we also recognize that we have the privilege of choice to speak out (or not) on the moral issues of poverty, inadequate income, and the harms they cause. Because of this, we have a responsibility to contribute to this movement.

The Poor People’s Campaign intersects with UCS issues

While all of us are harmed by systemic racism, the climate crisis, attacks on our democracy, militarism and the threat of nuclear war, these issues disproportionately affect poor and low-wage workers and their communities. These communities contain the expertise, resilience, and knowledge that are necessary to plot the way forward—along with the political power necessary to win on issues of policy.

The work UCS is doing on climate change, voting rights and nuclear security is deeply tied to the needs and demands made at the Poor People’s March last month. Here’s how:

Climate change: roughly 140 million people in the U.S. are one emergency away from financial disaster. Extreme weather such as flooding, droughts, extreme heat, and more intense storms, worsened by climate change, hits low-income communities hardest. Continued fossil fuel energy dependence takes more money out of historically marginalized communities’ pockets, as the costs of heating, cooling, and gasoline are a larger portion of their household budgets (for low-income households, the national average energy burden for electricity and gas alone is 8.1 percent, compared to an average of 2.3 percent for non-low-income households).

We must prioritize investments in climate resilience for historically marginalized communities. Investments in a green economy not only benefit people’s health and the climate but provide benefits in form of good paying jobs. A just transition to a clean-energy economy is the priority and solution.

Democracy: every day, decisions are made that affect all of us—laws, regulations, and policy choices. If these decisions are to be practical, effective, just, and equitable, they must be grounded in facts and evidence, and those most affected must have a voice in their making. Science and democracy are indispensable partners in ensuring that public decisions serve the public interest. But the public interest doesn’t necessarily align with the interests of the powerful. Science and democracy are often attacked by those who see their bottom lines or political power at stake. These attacks do real harm when they succeed—and those of us already carrying the heaviest burdens—communities of color and people living in poverty—suffer most.

We will not solve the other pressing issues facing our country—including climate change, environmental injustice, racial inequity, the growing risk of nuclear war, and the coronavirus pandemic—unless we have a healthy, functioning democracy where everyone’s voice can be heard. The science community, like every other part of civil society, must stand up for democracy before it’s too late. This means joining with partners in fighting for democracy, getting out the vote, and pushing Congress to move key voting rights and pro-democracy legislation. We must learn from civil rights leaders and voting rights advocates and be a part of a movement to shift power to those whose voices have been suppressed.

Nuclear weapons: bloated annual budgets for developing nuclear weapons take resources away from the urgent needs of people in the US and direct them to weapons that can never be used. The United States spends $5 million every hour on nuclear weapons. And while most communities will never experience the dubious benefits of those investments, many communities have experienced the fallout, as nuclear weapons testing and production exposes low-income, Indigenous, and communities of color to toxic waste. Studies suggest that these activities have likely caused tens to possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths and severe illnesses, as nuclear frontline communities live with high levels of exposure to radiation and other toxins.

However, with the right policy changes and a commitment to diplomacy, the United States can be a leader in reducing the nuclear threat. With our Back from the Brink coalition, we’ll continue to bring in more voices in the conversation around disarmament and diverting military spending to help people instead.

Can faith and science co-exist?

Faith and science are sometimes put at odds in our country, in an attempt to divide us. But the truth remains that we have more in common than divides us.

The Poor People’s Campaign is anchored by a moral agenda, led by faith organizations and faith leaders. So how does a science-based organization like UCS fit into this?

Faith and science both deal with questions of how we manage questions of uncertainty. Astronomer Carl Sagan also addressed this theme, suggesting that the true power of science lies not in feeding our culture’s addiction to ready-made answers, but in its methodological dedication to facing and asking the ‘unanswerable questions’ that make us human, and then devising approaches for testing proposed answers.

This moment we are in when so many of our deepest held values are being attacked requires organizing across movements, and welcoming collaboration between perhaps unexpected partners, such as faith groups and scientists. UCS staff working on nuclear weapons policies and climate change have long collaborated with faith leaders across religious traditions.

We need to hold onto hope

The same way that so many of us turn to faith in uncertain times, science helps me reframe my relationship to uncertainty and hope. And science can help us reframe how we think about hope.

Psychologist Charles Snyder’s research was focused on the intersection of clinical, social, and health psychology. He showed that hope is not a warm and fuzzy emotion, but a cognitive process, which can be broken down into three basic elements:

  1. Hope happens when we can set realistic goals. It’s the “I know where I want to go” piece of the puzzle.
  2. Hope happens when we can figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative pathways to success. It’s the “I know how to get there, I’m persistent, I can tolerate disappointment and try again” part.
  3. Finally, hope happens when we believe in ourselves—when we feel that “I can do this” or even better yet, “We can do this.” Some might call that faith.

This social science research-backed definition of hope really resonated with me. Defined this way, I realized, I can carry and cultivate hope without feeling naïve or unrealistic. 

We are living with the uncertainty of if we, as a collective, will rise to the occasion and make the change we need to create a sustainable, equitable society. In the face of that uncertainty, it can feel difficult to feel hopeful. In such precarious times, events like the Assembly and Moral March can remind us that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We need to feel like we have agency and remember that we are powerful together.

If we’re up for hope, we’ll have to acknowledge that it will necessarily be a struggle. That’s part of the equation, balancing hope and struggle. All of our work at UCS takes place within a larger movement focused on building the best possible future for ourselves, our communities, and future generations—and what is that if not hopeful?

For more reflections on the Poor People’s Campaign and the Assembly and Moral March, please read this blog post authored by my wonderful colleague Kate Cell, Senior Climate Campaign Manager.